Athena herself appears on stage; she describes her flight without wings over the sea from an area near Troy that the Greek leaders gave to her after the Trojan War. Seeing the Furies, she feels wonder, but not fear. She asks to know who they are, as well as who the stranger by her image is; you are unlike any goddesses or mortals, she says to the Furies, “But to speak ill of others who are free of blame / is far from Justice, and Right will have none of it” (413-14). The Chorus Leader, speaking for all of them, explains that they are “the eternal children of Night, / and Curses is our name in our home below the earth” (416-17). She explains that their privilege is to drive those who kill their kin to the joyless place, and that is where they are driving this man who killed his mother. Athena wants to know whether he was under any constraint, but the Leader says that no threat could be a good reason for matricide. Athena insists that the stranger’s side must be heard; the Leader complains that he will not take the usual oath. Athena says they are not being just, and the Leader tells her to question Orestes and judge rightly. They see her as worthy of reverence and are willing to have her settle the case.
Athena turns to Orestes, and asks him to tell her his story and answer this accusation, it he has come as a suppliant, holding her image, “with confidence in justice” (439). Orestes first explains that he is no longer in need of purification, and he has not touched her image with polluted hands. All the rites of purification he has been through elsewhere. He is from Argos, and his father was Agamemnon, with whom she defeated Troy. My father died a shameful death, he explains; my mother trapped him in the bath and killed him. I had been in exile, but I came back and killed her as a penalty for her killing of my father. Apollo shares the responsibility; he told me what I would suffer if I did not act. I will abide by your decision as to whether I acted justly or not.
Athena does not want to decide the case herself. Orestes has come as a harmless suppliant to her, and she accepts him, but if the Furies are defeated they will bring pestilence on Athens. What she will do, she says, is establish a court. Orestes must bring his witnesses and proofs, and she will choose the best of her citizens to decide the case.
Athena and Orestes leave, and the Chorus sing and dance their fear that if Orestes wins his case, children will hurt their parents with impunity, for the Furies will no longer avenge such deeds. Then it will be pointless for a father or mother to call on Justice and the Furies, and Justice will be destroyed.
There is a place where what is terrible is good
and must abide, seated there
to keep watch upon men’s minds;
it is good for them
to learn wisdom under constraint.
And what city or what man
that in the light of the heart
fostered no dread could have the same
reverence for Justice?
Neither a life of anarchy
nor a life under a despot
should you praise.
To all that lies in the middle has a god given excellence.
From impiety comes hubris, from a healthy mind, happiness, they sing. Reverence Justice, don’t give it up for profit, or you will pay. Knowing this, let a man respect his parents and reverence the honor a guest and host should have for each other, and he will be just and happy and never face complete ruin. But the man who defiantly transgresses and heaps up plunder unjustly and violently will be wrecked eventually “on the reef of Justice” (563) and struggle in vain in the waves of misfortune while the god laughs. He thought nothing could ever happen to him—he will be destroyed.
The contrast between Athena’s attitude toward the Furies and Apollo’s could not be more striking. She feels no fear, she assumes that they are blameless, and she will speak no ill of their appearance, strange though it is. At the same time, she cannot approve their exclusive focus on the question of whether Orestes actually killed his mother. The “usual oath” that the Chorus Leader complains Orestes will not take is the oath he is innocent, and may the gods destroy him if he lies. But of course the question is not whether he did the deed, but whether he can plead any justification for it. The Furies reject any idea that such a deed could have any justification, but Athena has paid them respect, and so they are willing to respect her and accept her decision. Just as Orestes stayed calm with the help of the image of Athena, now Athena herself exerts a calming influence on the Furies. Again, an interpretation in terms of depth psychology is appealing; there is something deeper than reason that must come into action when such deep guilt is involved, and the goddess who embodies that deeper level must be capable of welcoming even the ugliest feelings, since only what has been welcomed can be transformed.
On the level of the play that involves human politics, the need Athena sees is for a solution that involves a new institution, indeed, a completely different way of doing justice. Instead of individuals taking revenge, let there be a court of law that can hear the arguments on both sides and administer justice impersonally. Athena says that no individual human being can decide such a case, and that it is too hard even for a god, yet human beings, and gods, can forego the old insistence on personal revenge and agree to respect the decision of an appointed group. That “new” way had been established in Athens for centuries at the time Aeschylus wrote, but the first two plays of the trilogy have brought alive the suffering of the old way so acutely that the first audience could feel freshly just what an overwhelmingly important step that move from personal vengeance to impersonal courts was—as can we.
Not that the Furies are easy in their minds about such a huge change, but a comparison of the choral ode that ends this scene to the previous choral ode shows the extent to which they have already been transformed by the influence of Athena. No more wild dancing and spellbinding. They have a reasoned argument for the need in the world for the kind of fear they inspire, and they hold up the possibility of a happy life for those who revere Justice. No more spell-blinding, just the fear of conservatives in every age that if institutions are changed, values may be destroyed and society may fall apart. One way to see Aeschylus’ purpose here is that he was reminding Athenian conservatives that the institutions they valued had once been new and had been seen as threats to traditional values, though they were really a creation of divine forces, working with that divine gift to human beings from Zeus so often spoken of in the bleak first play of the trilogy, the Agamemnon: the capacity to learn from suffering.